Donald Fehr doesn’t do leaks. In what he now refers to as his “previous life,” the head of the National Hockey League Players’ Association showed he wasn’t much interested in grand pronouncements or taking credit.
So the approach the hockey world saw last summer as the NHL tried to make public and private sense of the loss of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak – in addition to waiting for some clarification of Sidney Crosby’s status – is what it can expect to see from Fehr when negotiations begin on a new collective agreement.
“I would remind everybody that a few years ago, the association proposed a rule that they wanted to eliminate head shots altogether,” Fehr said Tuesday, 48 hours away from the start of the NHL regular season. “And I have been talking with players and they with me ever since I’ve been here, about the problems with concussions and all the things that go with it.
“Most of my conversations and comment is with the people I work for, not with others,” Fehr continued. “There is a growing awareness of the issue.”
“Maybe that’s the issue: I don’t think it’s part of my role, most of the time, to hold press conferences.”
Fehr spoke from Finland, as the NHL continues its European tour. He was sitting in an office at the home arena of Jokerit Helsinki, staring at the team’s schedule written in Finnish and trying to figure out which were the home and away games. “It’s the visual counterpart of when you say something to someone and they don’t understand English,” Fehr said, chuckling. “There’s a natural tendency to slow down and speak louder, as if that will help.”
Fehr’s real cultural test has been to take his skills and reputation as the head of professional sports most powerful and successful union, the Major League Baseball Players Association, and attempt to install reason and cohesion to the mess that was the NHLPA under his predecessor, Paul Kelly, whose currency with the hockey establishment outweighed what seasoned labour observers saw as limited negotiating abilities.
The NHL, frankly, has a lot riding on Fehr. An engaged and informed players’ association is a must at a time of pressing big-picture and economic issues. To that end, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks spoke last month of the association “running almost like a company now,” while Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning spoke about Fehr having a “calming and soothing effect.”
Added the New Jersey Devils’ Zach Parise: “You always heard before about how the players were in the dark and things would just sort of happen. We’re a lot more informed about basic things like day-to-day operations, and plans, at least I know I am.”
Fehr was not a flag-waver when he ran the MLBPA, but he said the NHLPA needs to have the sanctity of the collective agreement driven home as part of its preparation for negotiations. “If you want to change it [the collective agreement] you have to go and bargain something different,” Fehr said. “There’s no law. Law covers taxes you pay the government, it doesn’t cover salary caps or training equipment.”
An unexplored aspect of Brendan Shanahan’s video-clad iron fist in his new role as league disciplinarian is whether it might devolve into an “us-against-them” wedge issue in labour negotiations, which Fehr expects will begin after the all-star break. Fehr said the NHLPA has been involved in the disciplinary process from the beginning, but he also wants to see the degree of consistency of the video explanations, whether they are “helpful in a fashion that helps players understand what the interpretations are going to be.”
When Fehr talks about learning as a result of last summer’s turmoil, that there’s “one degree of separation among hockey people, not six degrees,” it’s clear he’s read his membership well. In the meantime, know this: When the sabres start to rattle, it won’t be the NHLPA reaching into the scabbard first.